55 years ago this coming Shabbat I was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. Although compared to most B’nai Mitzvah today, I did little in the service, I feel my knowledge of my portions was pretty deep for a thirteen-year-old.
I remember my rabbi, Avraham Soltes, of very blessed memory, standing next to me with his strong left arm around my shoulder! It was so reassuring because I remember as I described in an earlier post (How I Came to Love Torah) being very nervous. But what I remember most appreciatively, and what I incorporated in almost every Bar/Bat mitzvah service I conducted over 40 years (except in a very few cases when parents insisted that I do not) were the questions.
In our synagogue back then, students did not give the speeches or Divrei Torah that have become de rigueur today. Rather, after I had finished my readings Rabbi Soltes asked me questions. He asked about my portion, he asked me to recite the ten commandments, and he asked me what my favorite Psalm was and to quote a bit of it. I quoted Psalm 61, still a favorite, “Hear my cry, O God. Attend unto my prayer. From the ends of the earth I cry out to you when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.” Without doubt, it was the questions and my ability to answer them that made my Bar Mitzvah day the most important day in my life.
Today, few rabbis ask questions. Only one of my colleagues with whom I worked together in years past, Rabbi Beth Davidson, continues the practice in her own congregation.
Today as well, most Bat Mitzvah kids will not even know what a Psalm is. Rather they have spent hours memorizing the chant of long sections of the Torah. Few, though, learn Hebrew vocabulary words that the rabbi can ask them on the bema and invite the student to explain how they fit into his or her Torah or Haftarah portion. I think our students are the losers.
The skillful rabbi knows that with a gifted student the material he/she expects the student to know can range far and wide. With a slower student, the rabbi and the student deal with a much smaller vocabulary list and other potential questions. In the service then, the difference between a gifted and slower student is not the AMOUNT of Hebrew that they chant, rendering the difference between them crystal clear to everyone who attends. The difference when questions are asked is more subtle, how much material have the student and rabbi covered when they studied together.
Yes, it can happen that a student will not know an answer, but if the rabbi has done her/his homework it should be very seldom. In life, there is always a chance that something goes wrong. A skillful rabbi who has studied with his or her students will know what they know greatly minimizing the chance that the student will (in common parlance) “mess up.” A skillful rabbi also knows how to cover for the student in the rare cases that it happens. Once — only once — in the 100’s of services I conducted a student missed a question, and I did not cover properly. I regret my lapse –30 years ago– and I will continue to regret it. But I don’t see that one slip as reason to deny a student the opportunity to remember what he or she learns — not how well or how much he or she can chant — as the focal point of the experience.